by Jim Law
Over the past several years, I have been on a quest of improving Linden’s wine quality. We have a good regional reputation and the wines have gotten favorable reviews, but ever since I ‘forced’ myself to taste the best examples of the worlds’ wines, I understood that there was still a lot more room for improvement. I designed a program of visits, readings, and tastings that lead me to the winegrowing philosophies and techniques that are now in place at Linden. If there was one common thread of the producers I talked to, read about, or visited, and could sum it up in one word, it would be ‘cuts’.
There are many other sexier winegrowing words in many languages for cuts; triage, declassification, sorting, selection, tranch, but I prefer the simplicity of cuts. Cuts probably encapsulates the difference between small lot artisan winegrowing and “food science” technology driven winemaking. Most cuts are made by palate preferences, intuition, and intimacy with one’s vines and wine evolution rather than pH, cash flow, or a marketing department. At Linden, once the grapes begin to ripen, most of our winemaking decisions are based on taste and vineyard block history. I will discuss the programs that we are implementing at Linden both in the vineyard and cellar. I might add that this is all very expensive in terms of reduced volume, time and logistics, and that it has only been a somewhat recent phenomenon that our market has evolved to the point that there are enough consumers who have the palate, respect, and disposable income to support our endeavors.
The goal of vineyard cuts is to concentrate flavor and texture, achieve optimal and uniform ripeness, and express place. I am a believer that there is an important relationship between cropping levels and wine intensity and quality, however I feel that I am still a long way off from understanding what the ideal yield is for each block in each season.
During the growing season we are making cuts in several ways. Dormant pruning is our first attempt at crop reduction and balance. Shoot thinning is a much better means of achieving a uniform crop and canopy. Cluster thinning is the most precise means of getting balanced shoots and vines as weak vines and weak shoots can individually be crop adjusted. I have been going back and forth as to whether it is more advantageous to leave a larger potential crop through mid summer and then cluster thin (green harvest) to adjust the crop, or to try to reduce the crop early in the season by ‘short’ pruning and aggressive shoot thinning. Advocates of the early reduction school say that this puts more vine resources earlier into the crop. Late season crop removal proponents say that dropping crop just before or at veraison is more accurate, results in smaller berry size, and can devigorate vines (often desirable in east of the Rockies). Most quality red wine producers green harvest at veraison in order to remove less ripe clusters.
As harvest approaches I focus on block differences in my sampling and picking decisions. We have less than 3 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, but have identified 6 distinct blocks that are picked and vinified separately. Soil type and slope aspect are the major determinates of making a block unique, but vine age, training system and crop load also play a role.
Sorting out undesirable fruit in the vineyard is the first winemaking cut. What not to pick depends on seasonal and site specifics, but examples include: “second crop” (small unripe clusters coming from laterals in vigorous vines), fruit from vines stressed by disease, insect damage, or other factors, sunburned fruit, mechanically damaged fruit, pink clusters in black skinned cultivars, excessively shriveled fruit (from rachis damage), and of course rot.
Sorting grapes at the destemmer/crusher, preferably with a sorting table, is the first winery cut. In wet years we have to sort both in the vineyard and at the destemmer for rot. A few wineries in France sort red grapes before destemming and then again after destemming. They are well aware of the negative affects of even a small amount of under ripe or rotten berries on wine flavor and tannin perception.
At Linden my winemaking has gone from mostly tanks to barrels. This is not because I like oak flavor (most of the barrels are old), but because 225 liters is a great size to keep the hundreds of small lots of wine separate. Especially in the East, we have so much vintage variation, I believe it is critical to keep lots separate in order to have options to make quality cuts down the road. During harvest I often have to make quick decisions based on palate and intuition, but I make better decisions on quiet winter days after much tasting and many blending trials. I like to make the analogy of a painter who keeps the colors separate on the palette and blends them on the canvas rather than mixing them together beforehand and limiting options.
I have already mentioned that we keep vineyard lots separate, within those we keep press cuts separate. We typically have three press lots for both reds and whites; free run, light press and hard press. I find enormous differences between the three. I decide on when to make the cuts based on mouth feel, bitterness and tannins (phenolics), aroma, and color. I used to use a pH meter also, but found that eventually I relied more on my palate.
Finally, it is important to have a home (program) for everything to go once decisions are made. At Linden we sell press juice, bulk wine, and then have several tiers of label designations (entry level, single vineyard, reserve) based on quality and personality. As this program evolved, I found that I had to have a profit center for each level of cut, other wise I would not make the best quality decisions.
Whenever I look back at my winemaking evolution, the one area that has improved my wines the most is the ability to make cuts. When I look at other “newly emerging” quality producers whether from South America, Languedoc, or Sicily it seems that they have made the same discovery.